The dog days of summer
Dog days – July is the seventh month of the year and traditionally the beginning of the dog day season.
The month was named for Julius Caesar; it was the month of his birth. Before that it was called Quintilis. Quintilis is Latin for fifth – it was the fifth month in the earliest Roman calendar. That began with March – named for Mars, god of war. Quintilis was under the guardianship of the Romans’ supreme deity Jupiter. Nothing related to Jupiter was likely to be sweet and gentle. For them he was the god of the sky and thunder, as well as being king of the gods.
July is on average the warmest month in most of the Northern Hemisphere and the coldest month in much of the Southern. And in the Northern Hemisphere, dog days are considered to begin in early July. The dog days are usually hot and sultry.
A star, a goddess and a tale
Historically the period follows the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, the Dog Star. Heliacal rising is when a star first becomes visible above the eastern horizon for a moment just before sunrise. The most important of such risings in the past was that of Sirius. It was particularly important for the Egyptians but also for the Greeks and Romans.
In Greek and Roman astrology, the dog days were connected with heat, drought, sudden thunderstorms, lethargy, fever, mad dogs, and bad luck. The heliacal rising of Sirius marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt.
The brightest star in the night, the Dog Star’s heliacal rising is remarkably regular compared to other stars. The annual flood of the Nile was incredibly important to the Egyptians. If the flood failed, so did the fertility of their crops. But the flood was irregular and the return of Sirius was not. So the they worshiped the star as the goddess Sopdet, guarantor of the fertility of their land.
Oh, that unlovely lethargy!
The Romans blamed Sirius for the heat of the season and attendant lethargy and diseases. Vergil notes vintners’ efforts to protect their work during the time “when the Dog-star cleaves the thirsty Ground”. Seneca’s Oedipus complains of “the scorching dog-star’s fires”. Pliny’s Natural History notes an increase in attacks by dogs during July and August and advises feeding them chicken manure to curb the tendency.
Dog days continued to feature in Western medicine. In 1564, the English, Hope of Health, counselled that purging (bloodletting and induced vomiting) should be avoided during the “Dogge daies” of summer because “the Sunne is in Leo” and “then is nature burnt vp & made weake” In the 1813 Clavis Calendria, the dog days are a time wherein “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies”. In North America, it became proverbial among farmers that a dry growing season through the dog days was preferable to the trouble of a wet one:
Dog days bright and clear
Indicate a good year;
But when accompanied by rain,
We hope for better times in vain.
T’is the season of the dog
Views on when the dog days start and finish have varied; anywhere from 3 July to 15 August and lasting for anywhere from 30 to 61 days. More recently they have been regarded as the days between July 3 and August 11, ending rather than beginning with the reappearance of Sirius to the night sky.
When I was researching this piece, the quote I found that I liked most comes from the Greek poet Hesiod and written more than two thousand years ago;
“But when the artichoke flowers, and the chirping grass-hopper sits in a tree and pours down his shrill song continually from under his wings in the season of wearisome heat,  then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis,  a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of a heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr,  from the ever flowing spring which pours down unfouled, thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.” From <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0132%3Acard%3D571>
Wendy Smith writes articles, poetry and books. You can find all her books on Amazon at this link. In addition she offers life and career coaching. If you would like to contact Wendy email firstname.lastname@example.org